“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honourably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honourably and justly without living pleasantly.”
Mention the name Epicurus and most people immediately think of a well-known brand of fancy preserves and pickles. To most people an ‘Epicurean’ would be someone who indulged in a life of fine wining and dining, someone who preferred to shop at Waitrose rather than Asda, who chose cashmere over acrylic, and whose idea of heaven was a long Sunday morning lie-in reading Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson: a bit of a foodie hedonist, right?
But were Epicurus (341-270 BC) still alive today, he would certainly not recognise himself from the above description. All right, he might have enjoyed reading Nigel Slater and looking forward to some exquisitely tasty meals, but he wouldn’t be interested in gorging himself or overdoing the wine: Epicurus the philosopher of ancient Greece firmly believed in moderation and living the simple life. He has often been misunderstood mostly because of his key belief that seeking pleasure is the best way to become happy.
For Epicurus there was nothing more pleasant than spending time in a beautiful garden in deep conversation on life’s meaning with his closest friends and followers. In this garden they drank water rather than wine and were kind to each other rather than competitive. Indeed the garden at Epicurus’ home in Athens where he taught his ideas became well-known and established as the school of Epicurean philosophy, much in the same way that the Academy was renowned as the school of Platonic thinking and the Lyceum, the school of Aristotle’s ideas.
For Epicurus the lessons of the garden were a form of practical philosophy. Gathering together people who were interested in ideas of life and death was a way of helping people to work out what they really thought and to overcome their fears and anxieties. Following Socrates, Epicurus recognised that philosophy is most useful when it can be directly applied to ordinary life. Philosophy can help to shed light on puzzling problems and ethical dilemmas and offer clarity. This Epicurean way of philosophy was incredibly popular during his time and is still one of the best models for doing philosophy rather than learning about philosophy.
Critics of Epicurus portray him as an atheist and hedonist, but his philosophy was more nuanced than mere self-centred pleasure-seeking. He believed that some desires were natural and necessary, such as the desire for food, shelter and company, and that we should pursue those desires.
In tonight’s seminar discussion one of the group mentioned that in the aftermath of the typhoon some Filipinos were looting for food and that was something that we considered entirely natural and understandable given the scale of the disaster. Looting for luxury or non-essential goods, however, was not considered natural or understandable, and parallels were drawn with the disaster in New Orleans when some people caught up in that situation used the break down in social structure to their own advantage by committing crime. The question that emerged was: is justice natural? Our enquiry seemed to follow the line of thinking that justice was cultural, thus agreeing with Epicurus who claimed that justice was a social agreement not to cause harm or be harmed. He viewed justice as a form of community policing. People have to first agree on what is acceptable or not acceptable and this code of conduct is then enforced in order to protect the community. This seems entirely reasonable. Most people want to live in peace within their communities and justice is one way to ensure that people know where they stand. In peaceful communities people have no need to loot or form vigilante groups. Chaos and desperation change the rules of justice.
As we have seen in situations of chaos some people cannot resist the temptations of corruption. Is this because they lack natural justice, or is it because they know they can get away with ignoring justice in situations of extremes? Epicurus might have argued that people don’t automatically turn bad when there are no community police around to stop them misbehaving. Instead given a breakdown in any society’s structure, people will see what they can get away with. We can all understand this very human impulse. We can all act impetuously. It’s what makes us sometimes jump red lights or neglect to tell a cashier that she has failed to charge us for the item now in the bottom of our shopping bag. We bend the rules of justice to make make them fit our new circumstances, and we even have a word for it rooted in justice itself: we call it justification.
Epicurus taught that we can learn to understand our desires and so learn how to appreciate all that we have. Once we understand that what we already have can bring us great pleasure then we will be less inclined to want more or feel dissatisfied. If we read the search for pleasure as the search for well-being then these very ancient ideas make sense today. In this reading, Epicurus is a very modern-minded philosopher whose ideas are certainly compatible with contemporary Buddhist thinking about suffering and craving and living mindfully. In terms of offering us food for thought into current ethical living, Epicurus has not yet passed his sell-by date.